Unwanted Change and Collective Grief

Unwanted change is an inescapable and challenging fact of life.

Change comes in different forms. There is the kind that occurs because time delivers us into new seasons of life. This is change we cannot fight but we know is coming. And we can prepare for it and grow with it.

There are other changes that don’t happen without us. These are shifts we initiate because we’re bored or feel like it’s time to move in a new direction.

Then there’s the kind of change that is beyond our anticipation and control. Unexpected things we wouldn’t choose but can’t refuse. And we respond to its disruption in all kinds of ways.

My song, Sleep it Off, emerged when I was thinking about this third kind of change. It’s been on my mind from a personal perspective over the past few years. But it also underpins so much of our collective experience. It’s the change that comes from loss, driven by factors like: political shifts, global health crises, war, social unrest, economic inequality, and environmental precariousness.

Unwanted Change - Wildfire near Ornes (Crete), July 2022

How Do We Respond To Unwanted Change?

The truth is, we all cope with loss in different ways. We go through rhythms, cycles, and stages. And this is evident around the world right now.

Everyone I speak to feels it. There is a spirit of anxiety in the air. Like an intangible elephant drifting between us, through us, and around the room. It’s a shadowy mirage. Bearing down on all we do and disappearing as soon as we try to work out what is truly happening.

The thing(s) that are lost look different for everyone. For some, it’s an ambition. For others, it’s a belief in how things are supposed to be. The site of a memory we can’t return to. A loss of control. Our youth. Our future. We might be losing a grip on meaning and truth, purpose and belonging. We might be losing a sense of security, a sense of hope, or a sense of confidence in authority.

We’ve Lost Something

In a sense, we’ve all lost the same thing. We can feel it and we see it from a bunch of different angles and through a variety of lenses.

But even amidst the swirling mess, there are things that CAN be changed. Things we CAN connect with. Meaningful ways we CAN move forwards. But only as we learn to accept that we’re not going back. Grief is a response to an unstoppable event. Death cannot be undone. What we’ve lost cannot be refound.

We all respond to grief differently. And it’s important to recognise that just because someone isn’t aware they’re grieving, it doesn’t mean they’re not. The truth is we all face a heavy season of loss right now. As a world. Of course, it doesn’t impact everyone equally, but it is having an effect on all of us. And the more we allow division to drive our actions, the more we all stand to lose.

Unwanted Change and The Stages of Grief

Grief Is A Head In The Sand

When we are confronted with unwelcome change our first reaction is often to deny it. It’s almost impossible to absorb and adapt to something we don’t want to be true. So we seek for information to help confirm our preferred truth. We rationalise irrational thoughts and pretend that this is normal.

Funny as it sounds, this is a healthy part of the process. Rather than confronting the brutal truth in one hit, we can gently adapt to our place in the new reality. But it does us no good to stay there.

Grief Is A Slap In The Face

According to David Kessler, co-author of “On Grief and Grieving”, “anger is pain’s bodyguard. It’s how we express pain”. He describes it as an anchor that gives temporary structure to the “nothingness of loss”.

In the face of profound change or deep loss, anger provides a temporary sense of control over feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness.

We might direct this to other people or groups. We might point it at the thing that is changing or has changed. Or we might turn it on ourselves. We apportion blame, seek vengeance, and become black and white in our thinking. If we are unaware of the impact anger is having, it can become destructive in our lives. It does us no good to stay there.

Grief Is A Loose Knot

In the aftermath of unwanted change, we might go over our past choices. “If only I’d done it differently”, we might think as we negotiate with superstition or a higher power in an effort to retie the shredded knot.

We plead with the powers that be to help us make things right. This gives us a sense of hope. The feeling that there was something we COULD have done differently. And we might tell the story of that alternative reality – the history that would have unfolded had we voted a different way, made another choice, or stayed at home that night.

We might channel our grief into symbolic acts – changing something about ourselves – in the hope that it will bring back what we’ve lost. It provides a temporary sense of hope but it does us no good to stay there.

Grief Is A Black Hole

At some point, it becomes clear that the unwanted change is here to stay. The painful realisation of loss. When there’s an acknowledgement that we can’t return to the place we long for.

It might feel like this is the end of the road. Like there is no future. We try and imagine what comes next and all we see is an empty space. But this is a part of the brave steps required to allow the future to make itself possible. This is a deep sadness that comes to terms with the irreconcilable desire to return to normality.

Grief Is A Road Marker

Acceptance is not the same as rolling over and giving up. To accept unwelcome change is not to be happy with it. Acceptance doesn’t mean we’re OK with what has happened and it’s not a destination where we are magically healed and made whole. It’s like a mark on the carpet. A scar on our body. It invites us to remember something meaningful. A story about a moment of life.

We don’t get over the loss but we come to terms with it. Psychologist Sherry Cormier says coming to terms with grief is not about moving on, but rather, learning to integrate change into our lives so that we can move forward with a new reality. She says “it’s sort of offensive to grievers to say, ‘Oh, you’ve really moved on.’ No, I don’t think grievers move on. We move forward.”

Grief Is A Source Of Hope

What if this is true for this collective moment too? We move forward together into what Kessler writes as the 6th stage of grief, meaning. Based on Viktor Frankl’s work in Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he recounts the horrors experienced in Nazi death camps during World War Two. This stage is where we are able to “transform grief into a peaceful and hopeful experience”.

This comes from recognising the way our collective grief shows up in weird and destructive ways. At some level, we are all going through the same thing. Handling it in different ways. But unless we all win, no one does.

Hope comes when we find one another within the struggle. Not as atomised, separate, and divided. But in our shared grief, across the divide. At the intersection of what feels lost. Alongside each other. Tentatively stepping forwards with meaning through an accepting lament.

  1. Some years ago, a self-proclaimed life coach explained to me grief often being the underlying emotion and anger is put on top of it as a protection mechanism. It´s easier to cope with anger (negative emotion about an event within your own control) than with grief (event can´t be controlled by yourself). It was a shitty course, and I was forced to attend it but this one lesson stuck with me and since then I try to find out if an angry person shouting at me isn´t actually a sad person.

    1. It’s nice when even a shitty course throws up one memorable moment/lesson! It reminds me of the saying, “hurt people hurt people”. The idea that people often act from a place of their own pain. It’s not personal even if it feels like it. We’re all wandering around with weird baggage, and we take it out in strange ways on people. Feeling this in a huge way looking at the world right now. Thanks, ANNE!

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